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Endless Summer 2: What more I learned by teaching about climate change.

A year ago (summer 2015), I wrote this article after I finished teaching a university summer-term course on the history of climate change. I developed this course from scratch; there was no model for this kind of course. You’ll read there about what I learned about climate change from that experience. This year, summer 2016, I taught the course again, except this time in an online format–no classroom–and it was twice as long, taking up nearly the entire summer. This was every bit as gratifying and fascinating an experience as teaching the original course. Thus, I thought I’d offer my thoughts on the second time around, as sort of a “sequel” to my previous post.

One of the most important things I learned this time was how quickly the field changes. Although the central part of my course involved familiarizing students with the history of climatic changes from the end of the last Ice Age to the present episode of anthropogenic global warming, I was surprised by how much material I had to add, update or alter, especially in the later stages of the course. When I taught the class last year, the Paris climate agreement had not yet been signed, Jim Hansen and his team of researchers had not yet released their groundbreaking study on ocean-atmospheric feedbacks, and the idea of the global warming “pause” in the late 1990s–massively distorted by denialists–still had some currency. This year I had to devote significant attention to Paris, I used Hansen’s video abstract as an assigned material, and new data has suggested that there never was a “pause” in temperatures of any kind. Furthermore, the revelation of the ExxonMobil scandal, where documents came to light proving that the oil giant knew about global warming in the 1970s and deliberately pursued a policy of denial and obfuscation, had to be included in my course as well. Things change very fast.

The data from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) continues to come in, and it all points in the same direction: we’re causing massive and perhaps irreversible changes to Earth’s climate.

The challenges of translating what was a sit-down course into an online format were also very illuminating. For this year’s class there was no classroom, no group discussions and my lectures had to be delivered via YouTube. Focusing the attention of the class on specific issues from the readings proved harder to do in an online format than in person. Suffice it to say I made use of an online discussion forum system to talk about the readings, which I found actually resulted in the students doing the readings much more often than in a sit-down course. I also had to learn to become something of an expert in video production! For hours a day, from late May until the first week of July, I sat in a small recording studio on my campus, talking to a webcam about climate change. The image of the webcam’s eye staring at me was not unlike the glass eye of the HAL 9000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was an odd way to teach, but when the class was over the students said they really appreciated the personal touch of the videos. In many online courses you never see the professor at all.

Most interesting were my students’ views, when the course was over, about climate change and their sense of what they learned. So far as I could tell there were no mind-made-up deniers in my class. But several did tell me that, before entering the course, they knew little about climate change and did not have strong opinions on it one way or another. Those students emerged from the course not only understanding what climate change is and why it’s such a threat, but also how urgent and important it is to deal with it. One student referred to a conversation she had, the weekend after the course ended, with an alum of our university about environmental issues, and she was gratified to be able to speak knowledgeably about the issue of climate change. Another insisted that this course was the single most relevant class, in a “real world knowledge” sense, that he had taken in his university career. I can’t describe how wonderful these things are for a teacher to hear. It makes me feel like all my effort this summer was totally worth it.

Popular scientist Bill Nye has been combating climate change denial for several years now, such as in this recent challenge to a denialist weather forecaster. There are signs that denialism is dying out.

I also learned an interesting thing about climate change denialism: it’s dying, and it’s dying rapidly. All of my students this year were in their early 20s, “Millennials” as they are termed in the press. After doing a unit on climate change denial, which included reading some of the ExxonMobil documents, all of the students believed that organized denialism as we’ve seen it in the past few decades is a losing strategy and that its influence is dwindling. Organized denial has generally followed the model of the campaign tobacco companies used in the 1980s and 90s to try to get the public to doubt that cigarettes cause cancer. In the long term that strategy wasn’t very successful, and climate change denial isn’t either. Oil company profits are down. The coal industry is literally dying. The voices of denialists are magnified artificially by the media and political apparatus, but it’s clear that few “real” people believe denialist arguments anymore. While climate change denial will never totally go away, I’m confident that, in only a few years, it will be relegated to the same kind of lunatic fringe where believers in things like “the Moon landing was faked” and “9/11 was an inside job” dwell. It may surprise people how quickly this transformation occurs.

In short, there is a great deal of room for optimism about climate change. It’s an issue that resonates among young people, and once they understand what it is and they have learned something about its history, they’re eager to engage with it in creative and incisive ways. This is a breath of fresh air that came for me, personally, at the right time; you may recall I wrote this rather gloomy article last winter lamenting that it’s so hard to be positive amidst the terrible daily news of climate change. This summer’s class has also cemented, I think, my professional reputation as being identified with this field in history. Whatever I do going forward after my Ph.D. is completed, I’m now virtually certain that it will have at least something to do with climate change. The endless summer into which humans have unwittingly plunged the world is a future we must come to understand and deal with on rational terms. After this summer, I think I’m more ready than ever to make that journey.

The header image was created by me from public domain images. I am not the uploader of any of the YouTube clips embedded here.


  1. Palmer Purser

    My first considerations of the events of ice ages were from National Geographic and my 7th grade science class in 1959. Since those images of woolly mammoths and cave men with spears surrounded in glacier landscapes, I have formulated my own conclusions over the years in a somewhat resigned posturing to the situation. I am only suggesting consideration as we undoubtedly have no influence with these realities.
    – The solar system pulsates. The sun, the throbbing heart. The planets, cardiovascular appendices. The ebb and flow of magmatism (i will coin the term.. magma, the core of every star and it’s primary planets combined with the magnetic bonding of the unit). One pulsation lasts for 130,000 years expanding the solar system to it’s widest diameter at 65,000 years and likewise it’s smallest diameter at another 65,000 years. On the influx, earth’s proximity to the sun sustains life accommodating temperatures for 15,000 years and on the out-flux, another 15,000 years of ‘warmth.’ At the 16,000 year mark on the out-flux, earth freezes and remains frozen until it returns to that same distance from the sun, 100,000 years later and then begins to thaw. Consider making ice cubes in your refrigerator’s freezer. Once the water reaches 32 degrees F, it freezes solid and remains like that, no matter how much colder the freezer temperature gets.

    ​- During an ice age, no warm blooded creature can survive. There is no liquid in the atmosphere. The best example of this conclusion is punctuated by a meeting I had with the Chief Engineer of the Alaskan Pipeline project in the late 70’s. She related this event to me with a profound clarity. She was visiting one of the construction crews in the deepest of winter. The crew accommodations were heated huts, set up in a array with as much as 50 to 75 feet between some of the modules, each of which housed 3 to 4 crew-members. On this particular evening, one of the crew decided to visit another hut but mistakenly decided to run to the hut without his breathing apparatus, a device that heats the air coming into a face mask. Apparently he tried to hold his breath but a few steps from the other hut, took a deep breath and collapsed to the ground as his lungs exploded. Even today, mountain climbers must wear such equipment when reaching elevations of such extreme cold. Even plants could not survive without flowing water. The only life on earth which would survive are worms living close to the mantel and sea creatures living at the deepest trenches of the oceans where volcanic activity keeps water in a liquid state well below the ice encrusted earth above.

    – Global warming is not caused by a polluted atmosphere. It is caused by a colder atmosphere. Heat seeks cold. Heat will take the path of least resistance to a colder area. Something I learned in the thermal window industry. As the earth gets farther from the sun, the near space around the earth, like where the space station guys hang out, gets colder and colder and acts like a magnet in pulling heat from the earth, the mantel, into space. It is this heat, the heat below your feet, which is melting the earth’s ice and warming the atmosphere. Nothing can stop the heat from finding its way into space. Even the heat in the air’s pollution is drawn into space. The activity of weather patterns disallows any containment of heat to cause the so called greenhouse effect.

    – Life did not evolve on earth. It is impossible for anything to have evolved in a life sustainable period of only 30,000 years. The only reasonable evolution is that of the worms and squid, etc. Earth is a terrarium, a set up by those who can do such things. We are trapped with this. There is not enough time to even think we can escape to even the next closest solar system because we can go no faster than 25,000 mph. We are all confused because our true heritages are from other planets, not this one, and manifests in the frustrations of mankind, his pursuit of war and his disgrace of other life.

    • This comment contains a significant number of factual inaccuracies and logical fallacies. You’re simply wrong on a number of very large issues.

      First of all, the mechanism to which you ascribe climate change, usually called “Milankovich cycles,” has been scientifically proven to be incorrect. It was discredited first in the 1920s, as it was based on the work of Victorian-era scientist James Croll whose studies (dated roughly 1875) did not survive even into the 20th century, and data collected since the 1970s has totally discredited Milankovich cycles as a cause of climate change. It is absolutely proven that recent (post-1800) warming has been caused by carbon dioxide. Should you doubt this conclusion, I suggest you read a book called “Historical Perspectives on Climate Change” by James Rodger Fleming which sets out the chain of scientific discovery that verified that manmade CO2 emissions were warming the planet, and this has been known since at least 1896. There is no, repeat NO, scientific doubt of this conclusion.

      – “During an ice age, no warm blooded creature can survive.” This statement is utterly FALSE. Not only did numerous warm blooded creatures survive the latest Ice Age, but those that did ultimately evolved into primates and modern humans. This has, again, been documented by ironclad scientific proof.

      – Your claims as to lungs of humans “exploding” in subzero temperatures is utterly FALSE. In fact, on this very blog, you can see irrefutable video proof that this is not the case. My friend Shane Ness works at Mawson Station in Antarctica, and he has taken several videos showing him breathing perfectly fine in subzero temperatures. Search the blog for the term “Tattered Passport” and you’ll see these videos for yourself. I can also personally attest that the notion that lungs “explode” in subzero temperatures is totally false, because I grew up in Nebraska where winter temperatures sometimes dipped to as much as 40 degrees below zero and I walked to school in such conditions. My lungs never “exploded.” Your assertions on this point are simply absurd.

      – “It is impossible for anything to have evolved in a life sustainable period of only 30,000 years.” Utterly false. Various cases of natural and artificial selection have been documented on time-scales far smaller than 30,000 years. Take for instance the example of the “Heike crab,” detailed by Carl Sagan in the original 1980 series “Cosmos,” an animal, chosen by human (artificial) selection, which has come to dominate the seas around Shimonoseki, Japan in a bit more than 700 years. Not 30,000 years, but 700 years.

      – “We can go no faster than 25,000 mph.” FALSE. The Voyager space probe travels at approximately 35,700 miles per hour. This is documented fact. At current levels of technology (should we have chosen to employ it), modern spacecraft could, at present designs, travel at up to 10% the speed of light. You assertions to the contrary are factually incorrect.

      Thank you for your comment, but I am not inclined to approve further comments if they contain deliberate misleading errors of this severity.

  2. Wow, what a rant that dude delivered to you. I think you responded appropriately. I am not a climate change denier at all, as our climate weather pattern has changed from summer to summer and winter to winter here where I live with no pattern that I can discern, only that it is erratic, unlike when we first moved here over 20 years ago and it was “somewhat” predictable. We had an unusual cold spell in July while Texas and other parts of the America were sweltering at that time. I can only hope my tomatoes finish ripening on the vine before the first frost, as it’s predicted to get down to 36 or below this weekend, yikes!

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